The Gin Game

By Malu Lambert

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, I walk into Cape Town’s The Gin Bar. Hidden behind the Honest Chocolate shop in Wale Street, it offers just what it says in its name. Along with a range of both international and local gins, the bar offers just four gin-based cocktails— categorised as remedies for the ‘head’, ‘heart’, ‘ambition’ and ‘soul’. (There’s another gin bar just around the corner too, called Mother’s Ruin.)

Walled in with stacked terracotta stones, the gin joint shares a courtyard with the chocolate shop. The tiny bar itself is in a backroom leading off from this. According to our bartender it used to be an embalming room, she points out the now plastered-over drains in the floor. To begin our discovery into gin we have invited Roger Jorgensen, the godfather of the craft gin movement, to meet with us. He positions his range of gins on the bar counter.

“We’re calling it the ‘Ginspiration’ series,” he says with a smile. Roger started a couple of years ago with the original Jorgensen’s Gin made with African botanicals. He’s now added hibiscus, saffron and rooibos flavours to his gin offerings.

“Gin is rapidly becoming a sipping spirit,” says Roger. “It can be appreciated for its own integrity.” He says people often first have a few sips neat to enjoy the aromatics, and then move on to mixing it with tonic.

Traditionally, gin is made up of three main ingredients: juniper berries, coriander and citrus. But there’s nothing traditional about what’s happening locally. It seems fitting that gin is being celebrated in this bar—it is, after all, the most mystifying of spirits. The laws governing the production of other styles of hard liquor are not applicable. You can make gin anywhere, in a variety of ways with, pretty much, anything you want. Not even the use of juniper is regulated.

‘You can make gin anywhere, in a variety of ways with, pretty much, anything you want. Not even the use of juniper is regulated’ 

This famously aromatic spirit originated from the desire to mask the harsh flavours of raw, white distillates by using herbs and spices. It evolved. Now all gin-makers have their own recipes, some closely guarded (this is also why no two gins will taste the same).

While it’s widely accepted that juniper needs to be the backbone—producers are free to add any botanicals they want, and often up to 15 different kinds. It makes sense then that in South Africa the use of fynbos is becoming more and more popular.

When you visit Jorgensen’s Distillery—he makes a number of other handcrafted spirits too—Roger will take you on a ‘botanical journey’. Showing you the different herbs and spices he uses, while doing a tasting of the gins. When it comes to balancing the flavours, “you’ve got base notes and top notes,” Roger explains. “Base notes give deeper, earthier flavours.” The botanicals he uses for this are roasted coriander, angelica root, calamus, apricot kernels and orris root.

“Every time you add a base note, you’ve got to counter it with a top note, say of African wild ginger, citrus and grains of paradise.”

The African ginger, he says, is extremely rare. In fact, he’s growing it himself, as he does for many of the botanicals he needs for his other spirits (though he sources his juniper berries from a farm).

“If your gin is out of balance it can become dense, which is when you have too much of the base note. Or it can taste flighty with overdone top note aromatics.

“The juniper’s got to be the hero. Everything else adds complexity and plays a supporting role. You need to be careful, as certain botanicals can hijack your gin—particularly clove and liquorice,” says Roger.

Roger uses Karoo sage, sweet wild buchu and confetti bush, among other indigenous plants.

Up the coast in Stilbaai, Inverroche Distillery  has made a name for itself with its range of fynbos-infused gins. And newcomers such as The Woodstock Gin Company, Hope on Hopkins and New Harbour Distillery (all in Woodstock, Cape Town) are also looking towards the Cape Floral Kingdom for inspiration.

“The South African landscape is rich in unique herbs, spices and fruits,” says Nic Janeke, from New Harbour Distillery, when quizzed about the use of fynbos. “Every country tends to add their stamp by adding something unique to their gin. We infuse our gin with rooibos to transform it into a red amber-coloured spirit. Jorgensen’s Gin uses Cape citrus and have the wonderful taste of naartjie in their gin, while Inverroche infuses theirs with a large selection of fynbos flowers and spices.”

The Woodstock Gin Company also uses a wide variety of Cape flora, including rooibos, buchu, and honey bush. While at Hope on Hopkins, the foray into fynbos is for their Salt River Gin, which has kapokbos (wild rosemary) and buchu in the mix.

Another small batch gin, Musgrave Gin, is made at the latter distillery—although it’s with the owner’s own recipe (much like many craft beers are made at Boston Breweries, for example). Founder Simone Musgrave travels a little deeper into Africa for her botanical influences. Inspired by the stories of her grandfather’s extensive travels of the continent, she says the spice route shapes her product.

“I wanted my signature flavours to reflect the spice and ingredients of Africa,” she explains. “After all, spices were traded for thousands of years here. The African ginger, cardamom and grains of paradise conjure up the spice markets.”

There are no rules when it comes to the gin game, but there are methods of manufacture that are preferable. Worldwide, small batch artisan gin is a relatively new thing. Case in point is Sipsmith, a traditional copper distillery in London, who were recently awarded the first distilling licence in over 200 years, for their London Dry Gin. They kick-started the gin renaissance in London—and like any good-quality distillate, the gin fever has trickled down here (Sipsmith Gin is now available in South Africa too—including at The Gin Bar).

The term ‘London Gin’ has nothing to do with the city, but rather the technique of redistilling the base spirit with the chosen botanicals. The longer the maceration period—prior to redistilling—of the ingredients in the alcohol, the more full bodied the gin will become.

A variation on this method is known as vapour bathing, where the botanicals are hung above the head of the pot still and the vapours of the neutral spirit pass through.

The final method is known as ‘Distilled Gin’, where gin makers can add extra botanicals after the London Gin process, such as rose petals or cucumber.

But it’s not all copper stills and juniper berries. Roger says the majority of gin around the world is made from a method called “cold compounding”. It’s the cheapest way to make gin. Botanical essences are simply added to a neutral base spirit. Many of the craft gin producers combine techniques and methods (aside, of course, from cold compounding), which makes the gins even more individual.

But why stop there? The production of craft tonic is now riding the coat-tails (or should that be cocktails?) of the gin trend. Roger is, of course, making his own tonic too, called ‘!onic’ (using the San click sound). “It’s made from natural quinine, lemongrass, calamus and citric acid,” says Roger. “Natural quinine will give the tonic a light orange colour, while clear tonic is made from a chemical called hydrochloride.”

Another tonic to look out for is being made by winemaker Adi Badenhorst in the Swartland. Swaan Tonic is made from quinine, lime, cardamom and mint.

All this learning about gin is thirsty work. We head out to the courtyard with a cocktail each, I’m sipping on the ‘ambition’—made with Woodstock Inception Gin, along with fresh botanicals of thyme, cucumber and cinnamon. The drink is said to cure impulse buying. Why then do I have the urge to go out and buy every South African craft gin I can get my hands on?